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|July 30, 1998||
With a view to a Cup...Prem Panicker
IN England, most of the debate now centers around the omission of Chris Lewis from the 37-man provisional World Cup squad announced by England's selectors earlier this week.
The Leicestershire all-rounder with a penchant for getting entangled in controversies (his last major headline was, if you recall, for posing in the nude in a women's magazine), for his part, promptly did a Mohinder Amarnath on his selectors, suggesting -- in trite, if inelegant, phraseology that David Graveny, Graham Gooch and company were "full of shit" and could do with sight-improving spectacles.
You'd normally expect such strong language to signal the end of a player's prospects -- but Lewis, underlining the dictum that you can't argue with success, promptly turned on the juice, with 3-25 and three outstanding slip catches in his team's demolition of the Brian Lara-led Warwickshire side in the quarterfinal of the NatWest Trophy, packing Lara's lot out for a paltry 98 and helping his side to a thumping 8 wicket upset win.
In the face of such tangible evidence that they could be mistaken in leaving Lewis out, the England selectors are already singing a soft tune. Graveney, for instance, hinted that perhaps the all-rounder had a point in pressing his claim, while wryly adding that he wished Lewis had been more moderate in his language. Bottom line: the lanky all rounder could get away with a fine, and still make the short-list sooner rather than later.
"It's important to stress that this squad selection remains open-ended, as we don't have to name our official provisional World Cup squad until January 15 next year," said Graveney. "As such, we have plenty of scope to add in-form players to this party over the next few months, if appropriate."
But what interests me the most about the squad is not so much the personnel (though I must confess to some quiet amusement that the English selectors have finally undone a wrong, and confirmed that Atherton is not the one-day dunce he was made out to be), but the rationale behind it.
Graveney, while releasing the list of 37, announced that the early naming of the probables would give the side's fitness adviser, Dean Riddle, an opportunity to start each individual player on specific fitness programmes, tailored to the needs of the World Cup.
As so often when I read, or hear about, developments elsewhere in the cricketing world, I am left with a yearning, wistful, "Why can't we be like that?" feeling in my mind.
That the physical condition of our players is perhaps the worst among contemporary players is undeniable. With no intention of disaparaging any one particular player, the statistics given below -- sent to me, incidentally, by a reader to whom, many thanks -- are indicative of the extent of the problem.
When Saurav Ganguly returned after his recent injury, he was able, during physical trials, to run 12 runs per minute. (These trials, meant to calculate a batsman's footspeed over the length of the pitch, has a player running from one end to another, timed for the full 60 seconds).
The fastest of our bunch, Ajay Jadeja, does 18 runs per minute, but he is way ahead of the pack. Compare that with one of the best runners between wickets in international cricket -- Michael Bevan, who comfortably tops 20 runs per minute without gasping for breath, and who does the 100m sprint at speeds faster than the Indian national record in the event.
This is where other sides are going to have the edge over us, come the World Cup.
But what are we doing, to restore parity? In one word, the answer is, nothing.
Sure, we are picking a squad of 20, in August, and putting them into a conditioning camp in Chennai. And what happens there? I'll be going down to Chennai for the duration, so I'll be able to tell you about it first hand -- but from previous experience, the team will assemble early in the morning, do the kind of warm-up exercises they used to teach us in school, then head off to the dressing rooms for idli, vada, upma and strong filter coffee, and emerge therefrom to loll in plastic chairs along the periphery, chatting with guests, while two players take their turn in the nets.
What an awful waste it's all going to be, in terms of getting the players match fit -- more so since we have, now, a physical fitness trainer in Andrews Kokinos who, all reports indicate, actually knows what he is doing unlike his predecessor, the unlamented Ali Irani.
I could understand, perhaps even condone, the inability of the Leles, Rungtas and suchlike to think for themselves -- but is it really too much to expect them to follow examples that abound in plenty elsewhere?
Both Anshuman Gaikwad and Andrews Kokinos have been maintaining, for over six months now, that the weaknesses in Indian cricket -- shoddy fielding and throwing, lackadaisical running between wickets and such -- all stem from poor fitness standards, and that the only solution is to put the players into a camp of at least a fortnight, during which time the players will do nothing but go through their paces under the trainer's eye, while he makes detailed individual notes, and then presents each player with a programme tailormade for him.
Gaikwad and Kokinos made the request. England is now setting the example. It remains to be seen, though, whether we will have the vision, the foresight, to heed our own coach and trainer, or even to emulate the examples set for us by others.
Or will we stumble along, content to think from one ODI fixture to the next and, after the World Cup, bend our minds into "analysing" the reasons for our less than par performances?
Optimist though I am, I have this feeling that the latter choice is the one the governing body of Indian cricket will put a tick mark next to.
Meanwhile, as an intellectual exercise -- who knows, maybe the Board will get the message, after all -- let's try and figure out an action plan for getting the Indian team fit, both in terms of game and fitness, for the Cup.
Tell us how you would go about it -- the kind of squad you would pick, how many, what kind of camps would be held and in what periodicity, how many international engagements you would have the side participating in, in order to fine tune their play for the big event.
Your platform is here....
THANKS to the fact that the Indian team is not, at this present, playing too much cricket, I get a chance to watch action from elsewhere.
The fourth Cornhill Test, between England and South Africa at Trent Bridge, was one such occasion that afforded me much to delight in. Also an occasion to rue the declining standards in umpiring -- courtesy, in this case, Merv Kitchen -- but that's another story.
There was much in there to delight the cricket watcher -- Atherton's heroics, albeit helped along by some of the shoddiest umpiring seen in recent times; the fire and fury of Allan Donald when he decided to slip the leash and go flat out in a display of magnificient fast bowling...
But the standout performer, for me, was South African captain Hansie Cronje. His century in the first innings was a classic, its defining moment coming when he was on a very watchful 17 and Ian Salisbury, brought into the side apparently to strengthen England's attack, took the ball to him. As early as ball three, Cronje waltzed a long way down the track to slam the bowler over the infield on the onside for four, then followed up in the next over with a vicious pull off a none-too-short ball for six.
With that, Cronje had defused a potential threat. He had done it deliberately, intentionally risking dismissal in the larger interest of the team -- the one thing you don't want, as a side, is for a bowler, coming back out of the shadows, to be allowed to settle into any kind of rhythm.
And what was most commendable about it all was that Cronje, at the time, was into his 45th Test innings without a century to his name. Most batsmen going through that kind of a patch would graft, grind, play with an eye on their own personal record and the team be damned.
Cronje didn't do that. Rather, he read the situation and, despite not having settled down at the crease, did precisely what he had to do against the new bowler.
Eyeopening stuff, too. For as I think back on that statistic -- 44 Test innings without a three-digit score -- I can't help but think that only a Cronje could have escaped such a prolonged run of bad form unscathed.
Not because he is a cool, successful captain, no sir. So is Mark Taylor, but remember how the Australian media, led by the redoubtable Chappell brothers, pilloried him, despite his leading the side to a win against the Proteas, for a poor run of batting form last year?
No, Cronje got away with it because he happens to play for South Africa. Because the South African board, and its selectors, happen to be a level-headed bunch, not prone to hasty judgements, not inclined to puff their players up one day and tear them down the next.
Rather, they keep the long term interests of the side in mind, and act accordingly. Cronje was picked to lead the side not because he was the best batsman in the team (I could think of two, three players in the current squad who shade Hansie in batting skills). No, they picked him because in their opinion, he had the leadership skills, the cricketing vision, necessary to do the job.
Having picked him, they gave him a long run. Thus, as early as the previous season, he was confirmed captain till March 1999. Contrast this with a Sachin Tendulkar, say, who was famously "appointed captain for 27 days" in December 1997, or a Mohammad Azharuddin who, today, doesn't know if he will be leading the national side two months down the line.
And having backed his captaincy abilities, the selectors let him be, allowing Hansie to work his way out of a poor patch, without pressurising him in any way. In short, they judged his captaincy skills, figured that there was no slide in that department, and left him alone to work out his batting problems in his own fashion.
Is it, then, any wonder, given such thoughtful hands at the helm of affairs in that country, that South Africa is, and has been since their re-entry into the international arena, the team all others want to beat?
A related thought -- I was reading reports of the Test in the South African media, and noticed that there was no particular hue and cry over that century. Sure, it was celebrated in glowing terms, the point was mentioned in passing that it had taken the captain 44 innings to get past the 100 mark, but that was it.
Any of you remember reading outcries in the Protean media, earlier, about Cronje's loss of form? Or, as happened with the likes of Mark Taylor, Mohammad Azharuddin (after the England tour when he was captain), Sachin Tendulkar et al, were there cries for Cronje's head, suggestions that he was past his prime.
Nope, not a peep from anyone.
Makes you think. Wonder if, perhaps, the secret of a successful side lies not so much in the players, as in a responsible, clear-headed administration, and an equally responsible media.
IN passing, a cricketing funny -- this one with Cronje himself as protagonist.
That he is a diplomat par excellence when it comes to post-game press briefings is a given, but recently, I discovered, second hand, that he has a great turn of humour as well.
Apparently, as the story goes, they were having this dinner in Lord's, and Cronje found himself seated next to a lady.
Said lady was washing down her dinner with wine, when Cronje turned to her and smilingly remarked: "Ma'am, I'd go easy on the liquids if I was you, this is Lord's and I am not sure the authorities have a ladies' loo here!?"
I've read reams -- a lot of it outspokenly critical -- about the ongoing debate at the self-styled Mecca of cricket, on whether or no to admit ladies to the sanctum sanctorum of Lord's. But this must surely rank as the most devastating jibe of them all.
Mail Prem Panicker
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